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Playoffs with Jose Altuve and Joe Morgan

Comparing the two ex-Astros second basemen with a considerable sample size of plate appearances in the playoffs

Fans hold a sign for Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve in game six of the 2021 World Series at Minute Maid Park.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Altuve follows a line of great second basemen who played for the Astros. Hall of Famer Craig Biggio first comes to mind, and he is closely identified with the Houston franchise. But fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who died in 2020, is sometimes forgotten as an Astros second baseman—perhaps because his greatest years followed his trade to the Cincinnati Reds in 1970. Morgan signed with the Astros and soon was promoted to the Houston Colt 45s at age 19. Morgan was the day in-day out Astros second baseman for much of the 1960s.

After starring for the Big Red Machine through the 1970s, Morgan returned as a free agent to the Astros in 1980. Now for this story’s hook. The last time the Astros squared off against the Phillies in the playoffs was 1980. Although Morgan was 36 by this point in his career and was mostly a part time player, he was a key player in that suspenseful see-saw playoff series in 1980. In the 11th inning of scoreless Game 3, Morgan tripled, then removed himself for pinch runner Rafael Landestoy (Morgan was playing with an injured knee). The run would become the walk off sac fly winner three balls later. So, Altuve shares this connection with Morgan—playing the Phillies in the World Series, just as Morgan was the Astros’ second baseman the last time the Astros played the Phillies in the playoffs.

In 2012, Joe Morgan greets Jose Altuve.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Overcoming Battles With Stature

In a 2018 interview Joe Morgan said Jose Altuve is “the best player in baseball,” and suggested that he doesn’t get the credit he deserves because of his height. Morgan, listed at 5-7, and Altuve, listed at 5-6, both have similar stories about breaking into baseball. By now we all know Jose Altuve was initially sent home from the Astros’ Venezuelan camp because he was too short to play baseball, only to return to the camp and insist that the scouts watch him play the game.

Joe Morgan was a good player in high school, but the scouts showed up to watch his teammates. Scouts would call him a “nice little player,” but he received no professional or major college offers due to his height. Instead Morgan played for a nearby community college and established himself as the best player in the league. He received interest from professional scouts at that point. According to the interview linked above, Morgan ended up signing with the Astros (then-Colt 45s) because the team’s scout was the only one who talked about Morgan’s playing ability without mentioning his height.

Regular Season (Career)

Career regular season stats for Altuve and Morgan should be compared cautiously, because Altuve is 32 years old and Morgan played until the age of 40.

Hits/ HRs / BA / OBP / SLG / OPS+ / WAR per 162

Morgan: 2517/ 268/ .271/ .392/ .427/ 132%/ 6.1

Altuve: 1935/ 192/ .307 / .362 / .468/ 128%/ 4.8

In terms of OPS, Altuve (.830) is better than Morgan (.819), but Morgan leads in OPS+ because the offensive environment for Morgan was lower than today. Whether Altuve can match Morgan’s career numbers for hits and HRs depends on the length of Altuve’s career and the degree of decline in later years. In my view, it is unlikely that Altuve can match Morgan’s career WAR.

Playoff Performance

Surprisingly Altuve has performed in significantly more games (86) and plate appearances (398) than Joe Morgan (50, 222). Statistically, players tend to under-perform their regular season offense, probably due to the higher level of competition. The two second basemen’s respective batting stats for playoff games is shown below.

Hits/ HRs / BA / OBP / SLG / OPS

Morgan: 33/ 5/ .182 /.323 /.348 /.671

Altuve: 95/ 23/ .268 /.344 /.508 /.853

The bottom line is that Altuve has been much more productive than Morgan in the playoffs. Altuve has been terrific in accumulating hits and particularly hitting home runs. I’m not sure Astros fans realize their good fortune to watch a great playoff performer like Altuve.

Altuve’s Current Playoff Performance

I can’t write about Altuve’s terrific career as a playoff performer without discussing the elephant in the room, namely Altuve’s extremely poor offensive start to the playoffs this year. Fangraphs previously published an article about Altuve’s hitless streak in the ALDS. Subsequently Fangraphs has posted an analysis of Altuve’s batting performance in the ALCS. The Fangraphs article provides the full analysis, but here is a short summary. Although Altuve continued to scuffle in the ALCS, his plate discipline and results were considerably better than in the ALDS. Altuve’s recent struggles are due to lapses in plate discipline and swinging at balls outside the zone. In addition, Altuve experienced some bad luck with umpiring behind the plate. In the ALCS, 4.3% of Altuve’s called strikes were outside the zone. Improving plate discipline has to be more difficult when a noticeable number of balls are called strikes.

Given Altuve’s good regular season batting and his history of excellent playoff offense, I think the odds are pretty good that Altuve will rebound in the World Series.